Saturday, April 14, 2007

Dear Martha: Hi, honey. Well, it’s been 8 days since I left you back at the Cosmodrome. Just like you said, it’s a little cramped up here. Thanks for the Glade. It has come in handy. The quail was tasty, by the way. Oops, gotta go. Fyodor and Oleg need my help with something kooky in the biomedical test module. Talk 2 U soon. Love, Charles.

Ah, Charles and Martha, as in computer billionaire Charles Simonyi and his girlfriend, Martha Stewart, domestic goddess. The preceding note is, alas, fictional — but plausible. Mr. Simonyi blasted off on April 7 from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz space capsule with two Russian cosmonauts named Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, bound for the International Space Station.

Like any good girlfriend, Martha packed him a lunch that included quail roasted in Madiran wine, duck breast confit with capers, shredded chicken parmentier, apple fondant pieces, rice pudding with candied fruit, and semolina cake with dried apricots.

There has been no news on how that meal sat in zero gravity, but no matter. Mr. Simonyi, the world’s fifth space tourist, paid $20 million for 10 days adrift above the Earth doing busywork and writing home. He’s also blogging from space, available online (

His trip was arranged by Virginia-based Space Adventures, the same company that made arrangements for the other four well-heeled space tourists who have rocketed into the heavens since 2001. And yes, the galactic concierges are taking reservations for a future “majestic journey” to the moon and back for a paltry $100 million.

As incredible as this sounds — the quail, the blog, Martha — Space Adventures is not alone in its zeal to hurl humans toward the vacuum of space. Come to think of it, that might appeal to Martha, too, what with the vacuum and all.

Meanwhile, there are 47 “accredited” space travel agents in North America alone, this according to Virgin Galactic, the scion of Virgin Atlantic Airways, both founded by Richard Branson. He’s only charging people $200,000 to leave the planet from the new and nifty Mojave Spaceport in New Mexico, partially funded with $115 million from the state.

It’s a little less bang for the buck. Passengers will only achieve suborbital flight — that’s about 360,000 feet up — rocketing along at 3,000 miles per hour, about the equivalent of the average Toyota Corolla out on the Beltway. The ride lasts 2 hours, but, hey, passengers get to wear spacesuits, float around the cabin and descend to Earth again in a glide that lasts 30 minutes and a view of 1,000 miles in any direction.

They also can claim the title of astronaut.

“In the U.S., people who travel above an altitude of 50 miles are designated as astronauts,” Virgin Galactic explains.

It has been booking space travel since 2005 and already has sold 200 seats on commercial space flights expected to begin late next year at the rate of one a week.

Of course, this was all going on in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick’s provocative 1968 movie showcase for well-tailored spacemen, excitable ape guys, a traveling monolith and one uppity computer that either alarmed or transfixed the assorted hippies huddled with their Good & Plentys out in the audience.

Pan American Airways was way ahead of the game. While real television images were beamed back home from the Apollo 8 mission late that year, Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s president at the time, phoned ABC News to announce that the airline was accepting reservations for future moon flights. It ended up with a list of 93,000 hopefuls, including newsman Walter Cronkite and one future president — Ronald Reagan. The round-trip ticket, based on 6 cents an air mile, was $28,000.

Almost 40 years later, restless Earthlings are still pining for space.

Budget Suites of America founder Robert Bigelow is experimenting with an inflatable space motel. Then there’s Florida-based Zero-Gravity Corp. — a four-year-old “space entertainment and tourism company.” IPX Entertainment Inc. in Toronto has begun franchising zero-gravity football. Rocketplane-Kistler Co. plans its own spaceport in Oklahoma to house, well, the Rocketplane. Xcor Aerospace, meanwhile, is developing zippy little vehicles for an “aerospace sports venture” called the Rocket Racing League.

Yes, there is a Space Tourism Society and a space tourism office at the United Nations, where futurists predict hotels in space by 2015. But wait. If Martha Stewart can make a space lunch, surely there’s room for more. And there is. Millionaire author Cindy Cashman of Austin, Texas, is planning a $400,000 “space destination wedding” aboard the aforementioned Rocketplane, 62 miles above Earth, in 2009. There will be a pilot and one witness along for the ride, which will last an hour.

“The idea just popped out of nowhere,” Miss Cashman observed. “We’ll be able to float around the cabin, hang around upside down and just marvel.”

But that’s what everybody does at a wedding, isn’t it?

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and excitable ape guys for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at or 202/636-3085.

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